The Mista’arvim are elite Israeli undercover units whose operatives disguise themselves as Arabs to gather intelligence, infiltrate protests, rescue hostages, and engage in counterterrorism operations. Mista’arvim is a Hebrew word derived from the Arabic musta’ribeen (singular: musta’rib), which means those who “disguise themselves as Arabs.”
The first Mista’arvim unit, known as the “Arab Department” (Ha-Machlaka Ha-Aravit), was established in 1942 as a unit of the Palmach. The unit was founded during a period when the Jewish establishment cooperated with the British mandate authorities in Palestine during World War II. The British needed intelligence agents to infiltrate the local population in the Levant and impede German plans in the region.
With Germany’s defeat, the British no longer needed the platoon, eventually leading to its disbandment. The platoon was soon relaunched as an independent unit of the Palmach called Ha-Shahar (
dawn) with its main objective to penetrate Palestinian communities for espionage and sabotage purposes. Mista’arvim must have courage, patience, alertness, self-confidence, and charisma,” according to a former member of Israeli special forces Elon Perry.
In 1986, Ehud Barak created a more sophisticated and better organized mista’arvim force called Duvdevan (Hebrew for cherry). The recruits, which often include Druze and Bedouin recruits are comfortable with Arabic culture, language, and customs. They look, talk, and dress like Arabs, and ride their bikes in the West Bank and Gaza as casually as they do in Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.”
When the undercover units infiltrate a demonstration, Esmat Omar, a Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs and intelligence, told The Guardian they want to create an atmosphere of mistrust, fear, and paranoia among protesters “because you can’t really know if this person next to you [at a protest] is another protester like you, or an undercover agent that can abduct you at any moment or pull out a weapon.”
In addition to Sayeret Duvdevan (Unit 217), other mista’arvim include Samson (Unit 367), which operates in the south near the Gaza border; Yamas, a unit associated with the Israeli border police and operating mainly in Jerusalem; and Gideonim (Unit 33), a force of the Israeli police that works inside Israel.
Using social media, Palestinians have begun sharing warnings about the presence of undercover agents – with instructions on how to avert being arrested or hurt by them, according to The Guardian. In some cases, Palestinians now confront the agents.
Sources: Emad Moussa, “The Mista’arvim: Israel’s notorious undercover agents,” The New Arab, (April 18, 2022).
Elon Perry, Golani Commando, (NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2022).
Hiba Yazbek, “Palestinians use social media to out the Israeli undercover agents haunting their protests,” The Guardian, (April 6, 2022).